British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Dogon Yaro (Ronald Bird)
Cutting out Expedition to Fernando Po
SS Duchess D'Aosta
During the war an extraordinary feat of courage and daring was mounted in Nigeria in January/February 1942. The object of the expedition was to cut out from the Spanish island of Fernando Po, then of course neutral, a prestigious Italian liner and a German supply tanker helping the German U-boats operating off the coast of West Africa. The Italian liner was the Duchesse D'Aosta which had a cargo of valuable minerals from South America and had sought refuge in a neutral port earlier in the War. The German tanker and supply ship was the Likumba together with a large motorised barge called the Bibundi.

I write this account as a tribute to the courage and resourcefulness of my brother officers of the Colonial Service in Eastern and Western Nigeria. Those concerned were from the Administration, the Nigeria Police Force, the Nigerian Marine Service, the PWD and others as well as elements of the SOE who had come out from the UK to help organise the expedition. Nigeria had always had close ties with Fernando Po in the Bight of Biafra. Indeed the coastal regions of Nigeria had been largely opened up from Fernando Po, which had been the main British naval base In West Africa (though nominally Spanish) for much of the 19th century during Britain's major efforts to outlaw the slave trade across the Atlantic. The Nigerian Government could not act directly against a neutral country and so the expedition was an unofficial one and the Government was officially unaware of it.

Cutting out Expedition to Fernando Po
Axis Ships in Santa Isabella
I first heard about the expedition in the late 1940s when Tony Abell, then a Resident In Western Nigeria, visited my then Resident in llorin in Northern Nigeria. I only heard a few details at the time but thought it very inspiring. I was only reminded of the expedition when I myself visited Fernando Po in 1956 and saw how in the small harbour of Santa Isabella ships were moored with stern moorings to palm trees on the shore and their bows held by anchor facing out to the mouth of the harbour. After my retirement from Northern Nigeria I came across a book by Patrick Howarth on the work of the SOE during the War. The account of the Fernando Po expedition there did not tally with what I had heard in Nigeria and merely said the expedition was a SOE one and "was accompanied by volunteers from the Nigeria Civil Service". Sometime later I was given a copy of Bill Newington's account which differed considerably.

Bill Newington was a District Officer in Eastern Nigeria who had been involved In security exercises with the RWAFF. Tony Abell was a senior DO from, I think, Western Nigeria but the organisation of the expedition with the SOE and some commandos seems to have been done by Lenard Guise, an ex-King's Messenger, in conjunction with an officer called March-Phlllips. The RWAFF was also involved in supplying equipment.

The expedition set out from Lagos in two tugs, the Vulcan, a large and powerful Marine Service tug with fairly silent engines, and the Nuneaton, probably lent by Elder Dempster Lines but with noisy and not very reliable diesel engines. The object of the exercise was for the two tugs to go into Santa Isabella harbour in the middle of the night, take any crew on board by surprise and get rid of them, blow off the anchor chains and moorings with explosives and tow the ships out of the harbour towards Nigeria as rapidly as possible. One of the British plantation managers on the island was In the plot and had agreed to co-operate with the expedition and organise a large party for the officers and crew of the enemy ships to coincide with the attack.

Cutting out Expedition to Fernando Po
HMS Violet
As the Nuneaton was such a noisy tug it was decided that 2 two-man canoes painted black would be sent in when she got close to the harbour to mount the attack on the Likumba with complete surprise while the more powerful and silent Vulcan went for the Duchesse D'Aosta and overcame her larger crew. Bill Newington and Tony Abell went in one canoe and two commandos, one an explosives expert, were in the other. Both canoes after a long struggle In the dark reached their target, overcame the minimum of opposition and set their explosive charges while waiting for the Nuneaton to come alongside and hitch on the tow ropes. Meanwhile the Vulcan with her crew of 25 armed volunteers had gone alongside the Italian liner, taken the 30 Italian crew prisoner, and fastened the tow ropes. As the Nuneaton went alongside the German ship one of the explosive charges with a premature fuse went off blowing Guise, who was on the bridge, onto the foredeck and knocking a Mills bomb out of his hand. Fortunately the pin had not been withdrawn.

Startled but not deterred, Newington and Abell and the two commandos hitched on the tow ropes and Nuneaton started towing out the two German ships. Shortly after, the larger charges on the anchor of the Italian liner went off and the Vulcan took her In tow; a fairly tricky operation with such a large ship in a small harbour. As the explosive charges went off the Spanish garrison woke up, bugles blared and vehicles dashed down to the harbour in a pandemonium of noise and flashing lights. In fact no shots were fired and both tugs got their ships out of the harbour safely and put to sea, expertly navigated by the Marine Service officers. On the way back the engines of the Nuneaton, which broke down twice on the outward voyage, broke down again under the strain of the tow and caused considerable anxiety in case they were re-captured by a Spanish naval launch and treated as pirates. However repairs were effected after feverish activity by a Marine Service engineer and the homeward voyage proceeded. At some stage a Royal Navy escort met up with the flotilla and they reached Lagos without further alarm. It Is said that in the dark days of the War in February 1942 the news of the daring and successful expedition caused Churchill a brief chuckle of satisfaction when he was informed.

British Colony Map
1955 Map of Fernando Po
Colony Profile
Fernando Po
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 102: October 2011


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